Oct 20, 2023 - Economy

Scoop: D.C. lawmakers to introduce new bill funding local news via vouchers

Illustration of a newspaper boy holding a megaphone and a large dollar bill.

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

D.C. council members plan to introduce a first-of-its-kind bill that would issue government-funded vouchers to city residents to donate to local journalism outlets of their choice, sources told Axios.

Why it matters: The bill, if passed, would mark the first time a local news voucher program would be implemented by a local government in the U.S.

  • "It's a big step forward," said Steven Waldman, a longtime local news advocate who is leading a coalition of hundreds of local outlets to advocate for the tax credits.

How it works: Council members Janeese Lewis George and Brianne Nadeau plan to introduce the bill — called the Local News Funding Act — in coming days, sources told Axios.

  • The legislation would allocate $11 million annually to local news subsidies for D.C.'s roughly 670,000 residents.
  • Residents could use those vouchers to support any local news outlet of their choice, with the exception of local TV companies.
  • The money must be used to support non-paywalled content. News organizations will be required to create a separate bank account to accept voucher funds from residents.
  • Both Nadeau's and Lewis George's office declined to comment.

Between the lines: The bill was designed by members of the Democracy Policy Network, a non-profit, non-partisan network that designs policies that promote democratic initiatives for local and state policymakers.

  • "We believe that markets alone are not sufficient to provide the level of journalism that we need in a democracy," said Mark Histed, a volunteer with the Democracy Policy Network.

Be smart: Democracy Policy Network has helped introduce other types of government vouchers for civic engagement programs in the U.S., including a voucher program in Seattle that gives residents four $25 vouchers that can be donated to their candidate of choice.

Zoom out: The program is being introduced as local news outlets in the nation's capital continue to cut back.

  • The Washington Post, for example, is looking to eliminate 240 jobs with buyouts that would trim nearly a quarter of the paper's 89-person metro section.

Catch up quick: The idea of using vouchers to give residents — especially those that may not have the means to buy a subscription — a chance to support local news has been discussed for years by academics and policy experts.

  • The new bill, according to sources who have seen copies of it, is groundbreaking in that it simplifies and resolves a lot of complex questions experts have raised about implementing news voucher programs.

The big picture: The new bill is part of a broader effort by local governments to find innovative ways to support local journalism, including issuing tax credits, funding fellowship programs and government advertising subsidies.

  • New Mexico lawmakers passed a bill last spring to allocate $125,000 to expand a local news fellowship and internship program run by the University of New Mexico.
  • California lawmakers last year passed a bill allocating $25 million to a state-funded fellowship program through the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism that supports local reporting in underrepresented areas.
  • New Jersey politicians passed a bill in 2018 to allocate $5 million to an independent "civic information consortium" to support local news.

What we're watching: The bill would need the support of seven out of D.C.'s 13-member council to pass.

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